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Video movie making meets digital still photography in these two new VHS-C camcorders from JVC



If you thought analogue camcorders, and in particular the VHS-C format had just about reached the end of the line, think again. JVC have come up with an intriguing combination of technologies that introduces the concept of a one-box image capture device, a camcorder that also takes digital stills, that can be downloaded onto a PC. Camcorders with still 'snapshot' recording are nothing new, but the JVC has extended the facility into a new area. In effect the GR-AX880 and GR-AXM500 'Dual Cams' have a built-in digital still camera (DSC) that stores up to 44 images on a 1Mb internal flash memory. The outfits include a serial communications cable and the necessary PC (and MAC) software to import the images into a computer, where they can be used to illustrate documents, Internet web pages, or printed out.


But first a few words about their impressively large range of video movie-making facilities. Both machines are quite chubby, though surprisingly the swing-out screen on the AXM500 doesn't add unduly to its bulk. The layout is typical of recent JVC models, in other words they're well thought out with frequently used controls falling readily to hand.  Balance and ergonomics are good though compared with many recent analogue and digital camcorders they're a bit of a handful.


The principle difference between the two camcorders is the 3-inch colour LCD viewing screen on the GR-AXM500 otherwise they are virtually identical. Key features include a 22x optical zoom that can be electronically extended to 44x. Both machines have an electronic stabiliser plus a set of AE functions and digital effects. They include low-light (or twilight) shooting mode, ND (neutral density), effect, for shooting in bright conditions, sepia mode for that 'classic Hollywood' look, sports mode for capturing fast action, neg/pos for reversing brightness and colour, electronic fog and a single-speed shutter (1/2000th sec) for capturing really fast movement. There's a choice between normal fade and mosaic, or a shutter/slide wipe to a black screen. The gain-up recording mode increases low light sensitivity to 0.4 lux, but for really poor conditions both machines have built-in video lights. A title generator superimposes a selection of 9 ready made titles, or you can compose your own (1 line/18 characters). The soundtracks are bog-standard VHS mono linear.


There's an excellent assortment of editing facilities; both camcorders come equipped with credit card sized remote handsets that have a built in 8-scene edit controller. They're multi-brand devices and can operate the remote-pause function on almost 20 makes of VCR. The camcorders are equipped with JLIP (joint level interface protocol) terminals, which allows the deck functions to be controlled by a PC. Also included is audio dub, insert edit, time-lapse and animation recording and there's a self-timer.


Now for those DSC functions. Still camera operation is selected from a switch on the side; it has two resolution settings. The standard setting allows up to 44 shots whilst fine mode gives 22. The difference is in the amount of compression (JPEG), in both cases the image size is 320 x 240 pixels. All of the camcorder's special effects, zoom functions and video light are available in DSC recording mode. On the AXM500 each shot is accompanied by a camera shutter sound effect. In-camera playback is on the viewfinder (and LCD monitor in the case of the AXM500), either single screen, or six at a time on an index screen. Pictures can also be played back on TV using the AV lead. Images can be downloaded on to a Windows (or MAC) PC using the supplied serial comms cable and software on CD-ROM, PhotoSuite for Windows is also included on the disc. Captured still images can also be transferred to tape and inserted into moving video.


The Picture Navigator download utility supplied with the cameras runs on any 486 PC (or faster), thumbnails or full size images are shown on screen, and saved for use by other applications. PhotoSuite SE is a 'lite' version of the full PhotoSuite program and it contains lots of useful image editing and special effects facilities.



Video resolution on our two samples was a shade over 240-lines. In good light the image is quite clean, colour fidelity is good, the auto white balance systems cope well with changing light conditions though indoors it's usually a good idea to select a manual preset. Low light performance is impressive and the built in light means you'll get a useable image in almost any conditions, though picture noise levels are quite high in poor light. The VHS mono linear soundtrack is its usual hissy self but it's not a problem as long as you're recording speech and incidental sounds.


Digital still photography has advanced in leaps and bound in the past couple of years and many new DSCs now have 'megapixel' image sensors that can produce near photographic results. These two camcorders are not quite in that league, and the relatively coarse display format makes enlargement difficult. However, since these cameras have powerful lenses -- a feature not normally found on DSCs -- it's much easier to compose a shot. In the fine shooting mode pictures look bright, colourful and reasonably detailed when displayed on a TV or PC screen.  They're perfect for web page illustrations; hard copies, produced on a quality colour inkjet printer using glossy paper can look very good indeed. Standard res images are a bit too rough to be of much use for anything meaningful.



To get your money's worth out of these cameras you will need a reasonably recent PC, and it helps if you've actually got an application or two in mind. DSC technology -- at least as far as these devices are concerned -- is not a substitute for conventional film photography. As camcorders they've got a lot going for them, they're packed to the rafters with creative features, they're easy to use and a lot of fun. On the minus side they're a bit on the large side, fairly expensive and not especially well endowed in the sound department. The LCD screen on the AXM500 is worth the extra, if you're going to be getting a lot of use out of the DSC facility.



Make/model                               JVC GR-AX880 & GR-AMX500

Recording format               VHS-C

Guide price                                600 (AX880)

                                                700 (AMX500)



Lens                             f/1.6, 3.8-83.6mm

Zoom                            22x optical, 44x digital

Filter diameter            37/43/49/52mm  

Pick-up device            0.25in CCD

Min illum                       0.4 lux  (gain-up mode)



Long play (LP)                        yes                  

Max rec time                        120mins (LP mode)

IR remote control                        yes

Edit terminal                        yes (JLIP)


MAIN FACILITIES               

Auto focus                                yes                  

Manual focus                 yes      

Auto exposure               yes                              

Programmed AE                          yes      

Fader                                        yes                  

Manual white balance yes      

Auto white balance             yes                                          

Manual zoom                             no        

Power zoom                              yes                                                                              

Insert edit                                  yes (still & movie)    

Audio dub                                  yes

Character generator                       yes                  

Digital superimposer                 no        

Image stabiliser                         yes                                          

Video light                                 yes      

Battery refresh               yes                                      

Accessory shoe             no        




time/date recording, self-timer,  high-speed shutter (1-speed 1/2000th sec), record review, retake, tally lamp, auto head cleaner, animation effect, special effects (fog, sepia, ND, wide), colour bar generator. built-in lens cover, built-in digital still camera with 44 standard/22 fine resolution (320 x 240 pixels), Picture Navigator & Photosuite SE software supplied



Viewfinder                       0.5in monochrome (AX880) 0.5 in mono & 3-in LCD (AXM500)

Viewfinder info               deck mode and status, low battery, tape count, shutter speed, fader, focus mode, tape end, time/date, title, zoom position



Stereo                                       no        

Wind noise filter                         no                   

Mic socket                                yes                  

Headphone socket              no        

Mic                                           unidirectional electret



Sockets                                    AV out (phono), PC serial connection (mini DIN) JLIP

& microphone  (minijack)

Dimensions                               113 x 117 x 242mm (AX880),

116 x 117 x 242mm (AMX500)

Weight                          0.9kg (AX880 inc tape and battery)

                                                1.2kg (AMX500 inc tape and battery)



Batteries (nicad and lithium), straps, AC charger/power supply, PC serial cable, digital still camera software

AV lead             yes

video light                      yes (built in)            

remote control            yes      

cassette adaptor yes                  

RF Converter             no        

Scart adaptor                 yes                  



Resolution                                 240-lines

Colour fidelity                           good

Picture stability                         good

Colour bleed                              average

White balance                            good

Exposure                                   good

Auto focus                                  good

Audio performance                   average

Insert edit                                  good

Playback thru adaptor              good



Value for money             ***

Ease of use                               ****

Performance                                ****

Features                                   *****



R Maybury 1998 2008





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